French airport security at Charles De Gaulle: incompetent, unprofessional, irrational

Charles de Gaulle Airport, Terminal 1, Copyright © 2007, Doc Searls

I recently flew through Paris’ Charles De Gaulle Airport (CDG), Terminal 1, on Icelandair and US Airways. To say the least, I wasn’t overwhelmed with the competency and professionalism of CDG’s security personnel.

I first wrote about some of the current CDG Terminal 1 problems almost four years ago. If anything, the security situation at CDG has seriously degraded. For example, its current procedures are now making it almost impossible to properly detect explosives in carry-ons through explosive trace detection, and can implicate completely innocent passengers.

CDG airport security continues to cause the time it takes to go through passenger screening unnecessarily long, and puts passengers’ valuables and breakables at considerable risk of damage and loss.

The easiest way to understand the problems of CDG airport security at Terminal 1 is to discuss a passenger’s journey through it.

At CDG Terminal 1, security is at the gate, after airport lounges, duty free shops, and food concessions. Since passengers have no idea how much time security will take, they are under severe pressure to go to their gate far earlier than might be necessary to ensure they don’t miss their flight, cutting shopping and time in airline lounges short. Moreover, as there are no food concessions beyond security, passengers have no opportunity to purchase water or other food and drink to bring on the planes. This especially impacts passengers seated in economy on long international flights.

Arriving at airport security in Terminal 1, each passenger is confronted with security line tables so small that only one passenger at a time can marshal their belongings to go through x-ray, causing significant gaps of time between passengers in each security line, slowing the lines unnecessarily.

Unlike most of the world’s airports, in addition to computers, tablets must be placed in individual trays. All cameras, except for compact “point and shoots,” must be taken out of their cases and put in individual trays.

Once your belongings are in trays and going through x-ray, all passengers go through metal detectors. More than half the passengers are then subject to patdowns because the metal detector beeps. Its sensitivity setting appears to be far too low. The patdowns are extremely unprofessional. In virtually every patdown I witnessed, the security officer rubbed the passenger’s genital area quite harshly and repeatedly, including mine.

Many carry-ons are pulled aside for hand checking, which happens at all airports. I suspect my carry-ons are regularly pulled aside for hand checking due to the numerous cables in them, which I use with my photography and computer gear.

The inspection tables at CDG are extremely small. There is no room to remove anything from passengers’ carry-ons and safely stow them. I asked the agent to be careful with my camera gear, but in rifling through my bag, two of my expensive lenses were dropped. Fortunately, I caught them.

At the least, more and larger tables must be provided at the beginning of security lines to speed them up, and at the end to facilitate safe hand inspections of carry-on bags.

Hand inspections at CDG Terminal 1 are very different than those I encounter at other airports. At CDG, the security agent isn’t required to wear gloves. When the agent began inspecting my bag I asked her to put on gloves. The agent and her supervisor ignored my pleas. I was upset with the procedure, not because she was handling my belongings in an unsanitary way, but due to potential contamination.

I was seriously concerned she would contaminate my belongings for the upcoming ETD, Explosive Trace Detection, test.

ETD equipment, used to analyze whether passengers or their luggage have recently been in contact with trace elements of explosives, can detect them down to a nanogram, a billionth of a gram.

Many, if not most, explosive chemicals are quite sticky, in part due to their molecular size and because they tend to be reactive nitro compounds, which easily adhere to other molecules, including skin, clothes, bags, laptops, etc., and are difficult to thoroughly clean. A terrorist may try to wash the compounds off everything, and themselves, but it’s extremely difficult.

By not wearing gloves, and/or changing gloves in between handling each passenger and their belongings, CDG security agents can easily transfer any explosive residue they contact from one passenger to the next and to the ETD swab they use to rub on passengers’ hands and their belongings.

Passengers can far too easily be detained and questioned based on a false positive of detected explosive chemicals because of this incompetent and unprofessional procedure.

Once through security, most passengers think they are ready to board, but such was not the case for economy passengers while I was at the gate. These passengers were required to go through secondary screening at the gate, some just minutes after clearing primary security, while business class passengers were all exempted from the extra screening. This is the same practice I’ve seen each time I’ve flown from CDG. Moreover, some passengers were required to have secondary screening well before boarding, then made to wait in a hallway with no lavatory access. They were treated as if they were prisoners.

These procedures and methodologies don’t seem rational to me.

  • Ton

    to be honest i never understood why you can get the same stuff that you have to get rid of 10 feet after the check, A scientist showed what you can do with al that stuff

  • BobChi

    Just a question. Is this what they do for all flights or just those destined to the U.S.? I’m not familiar with the layout of CDG, but in many airports, a sane inspection is done for most flights, but a thoroughly intense and intrusive one for those headed to the U.S., because of U.S. requirements.

  • SK

    That’s the French…… both arrogant and incompetent.

  • James Penrose

    Remember it’s all for security and you just *can’t* be to careful and no price is too high to pay for knowing the one in a hundred million chance a bad guy wants your airplane has now been avoided.

    Doesn’t that make it all worthwhile, Comrade? Smile unless you want the Thought Police to think you are not a loyal citizen.

  • Ton

    my experiences with schiphol and heathrow are a bit the same, the overlaying checks etc. The level varies with the situation

    schiphol at its “worst”had a person/luggage check before you even reached the airline’s counter, no family allowed, all flights with us airlines (together with el al) in a seperate section with further a pasport check, and additional security checkpoints between the general non schengen area and the part of the terminal where the gates for us flights are, another one to get into the waiting area and a final one before entering the plane

    these days the ones before the airline desk and between the general en the gates are no longer there the other ones are, which is logical because incoming and departing are not perfectly separated.

  • NedLevi

    My experiences at CDG are all at Terminal 1 since 9/11 occurred, primarily because I fly mostly on Star Alliance airlines at this point, though that may change, but that experience includes flights via a number of airlines in and out of the Terminal, to and from US and European cities.

    While the secondary screening seems to occur mostly on flights to the US, I have seen it take place for flights to other European cities. The other problems I discussed, especially including the problem of unprofessional behavior on the part of both male and female agents who give patdowns, of agents who hand search carry-on bags, and test passenger hands for explosives routinely not wearing gloves, completely negating the search and their results, and of the physical inadequacy of the security line equipment are throughout Terminal 1.

  • NedLevi

    At both Schiphol and Heathrow, with regard to the adequacy of the physical layout of the security line, the behavior of the security agents, and the procedures used to hand check carry-on bags, I have found them far different than at CDG Terminal 1. At both airports the facilities are up to the task, the agents are professional, and hand checking of carry-ons is always conducted by gloved agents who are careful about how they conduct their searches.

    In Europe, the only place I’ve found a problem with the professionalism of the agents, has been in Frankfurt (FRA), and they have seemed to have cleaned up their act, based on my last few flights through FRA. The problem there was rough treatment of passengers getting a patdown and disrespectful talk about the passengers, in front of them, when the agents didn’t think the passengers understood German.

  • NedLevi

    SK, thanks for your readership, and you may have made your statement to inject some humor in the discussion, but I have found that the use of the old, tired, trite, statement that the French people, and especially Parisians, are arrogant needs to be retired.

    I find the Parisians in particular a warm, friendly, helpful bunch generally.

    My wife and I try to avoid Paris hotels for the most part, and rent an apartment for stays there, whenever possible. By doing that we get to really meet and interact with the locals, and I’ve got to say, it’s been terrific. I can cite many instances where Parisians have gone out of their way to be helpful and kind to us. Oh, and our French is quite limited, but that seems to bother no one.

  • Ton

    oke. that’s remarkable, not very german at al, i have had some weird things happen at southern airports like rome where things happen like people strolling into an airplane through the open gate without any alarm or the other way arround the crew being locked out of their own airplane.
    but in germany you would expect professional behaviour, it’s one of the pilars of germanism :)

  • Ton

    the secondary ones usually only occur on non schengen flights, the level usually is schengen, non schengen europe, non european, non european risk
    with the usa, israel and some other middle east flights receiving extra attention with departures and african (illegal immigrants) and south american (drugs) getting the extra attention on arrival, it actually is a good idea to check arrivals, in the usa it can take more than an hour extra if you arrive in the “from europe”sweetspot.
    While if you arrive in europe it not funny if you arrive after a flight from colombia or (in the case of schiphol) after one from curacao. These are 100% checks flight, i once spend 2 hours in a waiting area till they were finished with a flight that landed before me

  • Chasmosaur

    An FYI on the cables:

    I’ve found that cables are the biggest culprit in triggering bag checks. Since my Mediterranean looks had me regularly selected for “random” extra attention as early as 2002 – one TSA agent memorably emptied out my carry-on onto a table and unzipped the lining of my bag – I’m always looking for ways to keep TSA hands out of my bags. (Since I can’t seem to keep them off of my body. :| )

    Two years ago, I started neatly assembling my cables/ports/travel power strip in a clear PVC zipper bag (or a gallon ZipLoc in a pinch if I can’t find where I put my PVC bags). I will pull this out of my carry-on bag and put it in its own X-ray bin, along with my tablet.

    My husband – a more frequent traveler than myself, but one who is far more All-American looking than me – shook his head at me the first time we traveled together after I started doing this. And then I just smiled quietly at him when his cables triggered a bag check and they emptied the whole thing out on a table, while mine sailed through.

    I know some people say that I’m making TSA’s job easier, or that I’m a sheep. But when you’re a woman that’s been pantsed by TSA in public, you try to minimize their interaction with you. And with all the news reports of TSA agents stealing from passenger bags, the less they have their hands in my things, the better.

    It does take a little more prep and a few extra seconds at the front of security. But I do not get tapped for bag searches anymore, and those are more time consuming and intrusive.